Grave matters: Dr. Samuel Hildreth loved history, botany

The large prehistoric conus mound located in the middle of Marietta’s Mound Cemetery apparently held some great interest for Dr. Samuel Prescott Hildreth, who penned some history of the mound in 1842 and then, 21 years later, was laid to rest in its shadow.

“He loved science-geology and botany, but he also loved history,” said local historian Caroline Putnam of Marietta.

She noted Hildreth rode on horseback to visit his patients, and when he came to a stream he would often dismount.

“He would climb down off the horse and look for insects,” Putnam said. “If he found one that was interesting, he would pin it to his hat so he could study it later.”

Putnam said she’s collected quite a bit of information about the local physician, who was born in Methuen, Mass., on Sept. 30, 1783.

“I’ve just found him to be an interesting character,” she said. “He did so much. I don’t know when he had time to sleep.”

Hildreth once answered that question by noting his physician’s practice kept him so busy that he could only pursue his other interests during “odds and ends of time.”

Putnam said at least one of the papers she’s collected on Hildreth indicates he may have served as a state paleontologist at one time.

That interest was evident in an article about the Marietta conus mound Hildreth wrote for the monthly periodical, “American Pioneer,” published in October 1842.

He wrote that the “beautiful structure is considered the pride and ornament of Marietta.”

Hildreth noted the directors of the Ohio Company who founded and laid out plans for the city of Marietta, “reserved a square of six acres around this mound, and appropriated it to the use of a burying ground, thus giving a hallowed aspect to that spot, and preserving it from the violation of private individuals.

“It yet remains in all its pristine beauty, a monument of the industry and arts of the ancient inhabitants of the valley, and a lasting memento of the classic taste of the directors of the Ohio company,” Hildreth wrote.

He noted the mound’s height and diameter, and the circumference of the 4-foot-deep ditch that surrounded the structure.

“When first noticed by the settlers, it was covered with large forest trees, seven of them four feet in diameter,” Hildreth wrote. “A few years since, sheep were allowed to pasture in the cemetery grounds. In their repeated and frequent ascents of the ground, they had worn paths in its sides, down which the wintry rains taking their course, cut deep channels, threatening in a few years to ruin the beauty of the venerable structure, if not to destroy it entirely.”

He said several Marietta residents at that time raised $800 to repair the mound, which included the installation of fencing and walkways and the building of a set of 46 stone steps on the north side, leading to the top of the structure.

The upgrades also included the planting of several trees on the surrounding property, which was likely almost treeless at the time.

Local historian Scott Britton said the region’s early settlers had felled most of the trees.

“The trees were likely pretty much clear cut as they used the wood to build houses or for firewood,” he said. “The local boat-building industry also would have used a lot of oak and other hardwoods.”

Britton said the lack of trees and very few homes in the area of the current Mound Cemetery would have afforded a great view of the surrounding area.

“The scene from this elevation is one of the finest in the country, commanding a prospect of eight or nine miles up and down the Ohio River, with a broad range over the hilly region which skirts the Muskingum,” Hildreth wrote.

He noted a slight excavation into the top of the mound had been performed many years before his article was written, and “…bones of two or three human skeletons were found. The public mind is strongly opposed to any violation, or disfiguring the original form of this beautiful structure, as well as of the old works generally. Several curious ornaments of stone and copper have been brought up at various times in digging graves in the adjacent grounds.”

Hildreth died in 1863 and is buried with other family members in the northwest section of Mound Cemetery.